Who will lead USWNT protection on the World Cup? Does Vlatko Andonovski even know?


The one staff to not concede a objective on the 2022 CONCACAF W Championship additionally got here out of the event with none apparent readability round its beginning again 4 and No. 1 goalkeeper. Go determine.

U.S. women’s national team head coach Vlatko Andonovski began a special again line in every of the staff’s 5 video games on its method to profitable one other continental crown and qualifying for each the 2023 World Cup and 2024 Olympics. He fielded 5 distinctive beginning 11s as a part of his ongoing experimentation with a brand new group of youthful gamers — however it’s in protection the place the modifications seem like extra about discovering options than having gamers get reps.

The place, precisely, does that depart the defensive unit with one 12 months to go till the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand? Factoring in some ongoing vital absences, tough choices loom.

Casey Murphy began in objective within the July four opener in opposition to Haiti for simply her sixth profession cap. Murphy made a memorable save 37 minutes into the match, denying Haiti standout Melchie Dumornay one-on-one to protect an early U.S. lead because the People teetered.

Dumornay & Co. proved too fast and misleading for U.S. center-backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Alana Cook and even Emily Fox — maybe the quickest U.S. defender on the present roster — conceded a penalty kick after Haiti obtained in behind. Roselord Borgella hit the submit on that effort simply earlier than halftime, and Murphy and the U.S. emerged 3-Zero winners in a recreation that hardly felt comfy.

Afterward, Andonovski credited Haiti’s distinctive attacking gamers, noting that “they are going to expose any defenders.” Two days later, he clarified with a extra affirmative assertion concerning the state of the U.S. protection.

“Completely, there isn’t a downside within the again,” he mentioned forward of the staff’s 5-Zero win over Jamaica. “However there have been moments within the recreation that we might have accomplished a greater job. It is an enormous distinction. I believe our again line is stellar. I actually imagine that we’ve the potential to cease any assault, any participant on the planet and I’ve no downside saying that we’re prepared to try this no matter who’s on the again line.”

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He added that the beginning lineup in opposition to Haiti “might be going to play nearly all of minutes on this event” and that there have been predetermined rotations heading into the CONCACAF W Championship to account for the warmth, fast turnarounds for video games and the necessity to check totally different partnerships.

Proper full-back Kelley O’Hara joined Sauerbrunn, Cook dinner and Fox in that beginning again 4 in opposition to Haiti. Fox missed the group-stage finale in opposition to Mexico and the semifinal in opposition to Costa Rica earlier than returning for the ultimate. Lineup modifications persevered all through the two-week event.

That leaves us with some key questions concerning the U.S. protection…

Which pair works greatest collectively in central protection?

Sauerbrunn is the captain and, implicitly, the penciled-in starter for one of many center-back roles. She was arguably the very best center-back on the planet throughout and following the staff’s 2015 World Cup victory, and he or she has lengthy been a participant whose superior positioning and skill to foretell play allowed her to be in the fitting place on the proper time. These traits — quite than relying purely on her expertise — are why she stays a fixture within the lineup at 37 years outdated.

Nonetheless, her profile requires the fitting companion to enrich her at center-back. In 2015, that was a younger, expert Julie Johnston (now Ertz) to deal with open-field tackles and recoveries. In 2019, it was Abby Dahlkemper, who on the time exhibited a number of the greatest long-range passing of any center-back globally.

Dahlkemper stays an choice, though she appeared to fall out of favor throughout final 12 months’s Olympics, and her restoration from damaged ribs prevented her from making the CONCACAF W Championship roster.

Tierna Davidson began alongside Sauerbrunn within the Olympics semifinal final 12 months — Davidson conceded the penalty which in the end determined the sport — and the bronze medal match. Davidson, additionally a 2019 World Cup-winner, paired with Cook dinner for the pair of friendlies in Australia on the finish of 2021, in addition to for not less than one half of all three SheBelieves Cup video games to begin 2022.

Davidson, nonetheless, tore an ACL in March throughout coaching with the Chicago Purple Stars, doubtless pushing her return to early 2023.

That left Cook dinner and Naomi Girma as the opposite central choices for the event. Emily Sonnett can play centrally, however featured solely as a full-back throughout the event. Cook dinner and Girma might be the long-term partnership for the U.S. within the again, however proper now it appears like they’re competing in opposition to one another for a spot within the lineup.

Cook dinner has the obvious edge after beginning 4 of the 5 matches in Monterrey, and he or she is an offensive goal on set items which the U.S. has lacked within the current absence of Ertz. However Cook dinner struggled in one-on-one duels in opposition to Haiti’s prime gamers within the opener.

Girma is a novel choice throughout the U.S. participant pool. The No. 1 general decide within the 2022 NWSL draft is superior to her friends in one-on-one defending and he or she can also be essentially the most offensively adept among the many present choices on the place. Already in her quick time with San Diego Wave FC, Girma displays each the flexibility to dribble out of excessive strain and select forwards with lengthy, correct diagonal balls (an indicator trait of Dahlkemper — her San Diego teammate — at her greatest). She put that on show in opposition to Jamaica, aiding Sophia Smith’s opening objective.

Two begins throughout qualifying makes not an apparent starter, however mix the potential Girma has with the progress she has already proven this 12 months — plus the wants the U.S. has within the place — and it units the scene for her as a possible starter on the World Cup subsequent 12 months.

Do we actually know who ought to begin at full-back?

Even the left full-back place, ostensibly essentially the most settled on the again line, comes with an asterisk when discussing the potential beginning 11 for the U.S. girls’s nationwide staff. Fox is the clear starter proper now. She was recognized by Andonovski final 12 months as a participant already able to competing on the senior worldwide degree, however who wants extra expertise in prime video games earlier than the World Cup.

“She’s probably the most comfy defenders that I’ve ever seen beneath strain,” Andonovski mentioned final 12 months. “Stress does not faze her in any respect.”

The context wanted for Fox’s arrival is that Crystal Dunn was the incumbent left-back and an integral a part of the USWNT’s 2019 World Cup triumph. She gave beginning to her first little one in Might and is anticipated to return in some unspecified time in the future. Dunn at her greatest is a transparent starter.

Might that imply — granting some assumptions right here — Fox on the left and Dunn on the fitting? It will be a particularly attack-minded full-back duo whereas equally giving the U.S. loads of restoration pace in huge areas, which might be vital relying on central partnerships.

O’Hara and Sofia Huerta largely shared the load at proper full-back on the CONCACAF W Championship, with Sonnett additionally rotating in and including vital offensive contributions in opposition to Mexico and Costa Rica. O’Hara is the incumbent right-back — and a two-time World Cup champion — who seems to nonetheless be the primary selection there, however Huerta continues to make her case as a stable choice who is perhaps the staff’s greatest pure crosser.

Huerta began the ultimate in opposition to Canada, settling into the match after Nichelle Prince focused her early in a pair one-on-one duels. Huerta, 29, is the marginally youthful choice to O’Hara, who turns 34 subsequent week, however O’Hara hardly seems to have misplaced a step when absolutely wholesome.

Proper-back — particularly if that could be a consideration for Dunn upon her return — will probably be an ongoing battle.

A veteran or a beginner as goalkeeper?

Most complicated throughout the again presently is the goalkeeping state of affairs.

Alyssa Naeher began the ultimate in opposition to Canada. In a vacuum, that’s the established order. However Naeher and Murphy break up time all through the event, and Murphy was a part of that 11 within the opener that Andonovski indicated was his most popular squad.

He mentioned afterward that Naeher would begin the second recreation, in opposition to Jamaica, as a part of a predetermined rotation, after which the workers would determine from there. Murphy then began the group-stage finale in opposition to Mexico and, crucially, the semifinal in opposition to Costa Rica (a recreation with a few moments of transient uncertainty displayed between goalkeeper and again line).

Naeher getting the nod within the last, then, was a small shock. She handled some early probes from Canada earlier than the U.S. again line largely shut down its regional rivals till the ultimate moments when Canada pressed for an equalizer. Even then, Girma was inserted alongside Cook dinner and Sauerbrunn to shut out the match in a five-back. Canada ended the match with 0.53 anticipated targets.

Whether or not or not there’s a new No. 1 in objective is unclear. However the choice to offer significant minutes to Murphy stems from a lesson Andonovski discovered ultimately 12 months’s Olympics — and a problem which has existed for the U.S. over a number of cycles: not sufficient expertise for backup goalkeepers.

“She’s an unimaginable goalkeeper,” Andonovski mentioned of Naeher earlier than the group-stage recreation in opposition to Jamaica. “We’re very properly conscious of her qualities. However we felt prefer it’s vital for Casey to get a recreation in. A part of the rationale why can also be as a result of, trying again on our Olympic Video games, Alyssa obtained injured and we needed to play a goalkeeper [Adrianna Franch] in two of our most vital video games who didn’t play one second earlier than. This manner, we all know we’re going to have two goalkeepers prepared after these two video games, after which we’ll determine how we’ll transfer ahead.”

Andonovski mentioned throughout the event that his staff is just not prepared for the World Cup proper now, however it is going to be when the time comes. A lot of that promise turning into actuality — and whether or not the U.S. wins a 3rd straight World Cup — will rely on the fitting choices being made for defensive personnel choice.

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